Baby It’s Cooooold Outside

The weather in New Orleans seems particularly cold this winter – probably a consequence of the Saints winning the Super Bowl and hell freezing over…WHO DAT! Here are a few tips to stay safe and get the most out of your heating system:

Gas Heat:
The best thing you can do for your HVAC system (winter and summer) is to regularly change the filter. Even if your filter has a 60 or 90-day life, go ahead and look it over once a month. Some houses are dustier than others. Some systems also have built-in “lifetime” filters which still need to be inspected and occasionally cleaned. The next best thing you can do is to have the system inspected and serviced by a licensed technician. Winter is also a great season to spend some time in the attic checking for duct leakage (see particulars below, in the Heat Pump section.)
In general the more gas appliances you use, the more necessary it is to have carbon monoxide detectors installed in your home. Even though a gas furnace is (usually) located in the attic, any return duct or plenum leakage could draw combustion by-products like CO directly into the house. This is even more of a risk where furnaces or water heaters are located inside mechanical closets in conditioned spaces.
If you ever suspect a gas leak or CO problem, get out of the house immediately. Leave exterior doors open so that the house can air out and call your gas provider (go ahead and program them into your cell phone…) Until the problem is resolved, do not use any appliances or devices that could generate a spark (including cell phones) inside the house.
Every once in a while, check the exterior gas line/meter connection to make sure it is completely level. (Strange things do happen – a lady in our office had her house shored and it twisted the meter almost 45 degrees).

Heat Pump:
If your heat pump doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the cold, check all of the duct connections and the air handler unit to make sure it is air sealed. Air leakage takes much more of a toll on the winter/heating function than summer/cooling operation. Use the smoke from a stick of incense (no cigarettes!) – return leaks will draw the smoke in, supply leaks will blow the smoke away. Check both ends of ducts, around the air handler and the full length of the plenums. All of these areas should be sealed with mastic, which is readily available at any home improvement store.

Fireplaces:
Both gas and masonry fireplaces should be inspected annually to ensure that the chimney or flue is in good shape with no obstructions, soot buildup or weak spots. Read last year’s blogs (here and here) to get the scoop on chimney safety.
If the area in the attic around the chimney is “open” (you can see down along the chimney to the top of the firebox), it provides a direct route for frigid attic air to enter your house. The floor of the attic should extend all the way to the chimney (metal flues should have a metal collar and fire-rated foam connection) and be covered in insulation.
Double-check the damper to make sure it’s closed when the fireplace is not in use. If you have an older fireplace that leaks a lot, install an inflatable draft stopper.

General Safety:
NEVER use candles, the stove, grill, etc. to heat your home! If you are worried about heating costs or paying your bills, contact your electric or gas provider to discuss your options. Some companies can actually help out with costs in emergency or difficult situations.

Go ahead and get these things taken care of now…If the Saints win it again next year, Lord only knows what will happen to Hell.

This blog was written for Paul LaGrange’s BuildWrite website and was originally posted on March 4, 2010

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